The Montgomery Alabama Riverfront brawl that unfolded when a group of White men attacked the Black co-captain of a riverboat over access to a parking spot last Saturday, August 5, ignited a fervent response from various bystanders who quickly jumped into action. The scene garnered international headlines and memes aplenty, as social media users celebrate the 16-year-old “Black Aquaman” who swam to the scene to defend the co-captain and everyone else who joined forces.
But the Internet has appointed the unnamed Black man equipped with a white folding chair as the most iconic fighter of the brawl, and the chair motif was quickly adapted into a variety of memes, fan art, merchandise, and even a tattoo.
Overnight, the folding chair has become the emblem of the brawl that called so many to action in defense of a Black man who was abused for simply doing his job — and also a broader echo (both serious and unserious) of Black strength, unity, and liberation in the face of centuries of White brutality that enabled this violent attack to kick off in the first place. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress and presidential candidate running for nomination in a major party, even cited the humble folding chair in her famous quote referencing the need to make space for oneself rather than waiting for an invitation to join: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Looks like a lot of people took Chisholm’s words to heart … The chair has since been superimposed over images of civil rights activists like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr.
Many have pointed out that what brought the brawl meme frenzy full circle is that a design of a folding chair was patented in 1911 by a Black American inventor named Nathaniel Alexander. (Note: The photo that’s being used in related memes is actually a photo of Black inventor Lewis Howard Latimer. There are no known photos of Alexander.)
Not much is known of Alexander other than the fact that he was a resident of Lynchburg, Virginia, but he applied for a patent for his folding chair design on March 4, 1911. The patent, approved on July 4 of that year, includes a technical draft of the design that was intended for implementation in churches, Sunday schools, auditoriums, and “places where considerable singing is done.” Alexander’s design included a book rest on the chair’s back for people seated behind to utilize, but neither his description nor his technical indicate if the chair would have been fastened to the ground or portable.
Alexander’s folding chair design isn’t the first of its kind, though — nor was it the last. Moses S. Beach of Brooklyn, New York, filed a patent application in 1857 for his design of a folding pew seat on a hinge, and Joseph F. A. Spaet, William F. Berry, and James T. Snoddy of Iowa filed a patent application in 1888 for the design of a portable, collapsable chair with folding brackets that flatten the back and legs against the seat.
The most recognizable form of the folding chair appears to have been invented by Ralph W. Dick in 1932 (and patent approved by 1933) on behalf of the Louis Rastetter & Sons furniture company based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Dick’s modification showcases the chair’s seat folding up to its back with brackets — it’s been optimized since then, obviously, but the general form is still in use today (for various reasons, as evidenced in Montgomery).
In light of Black history’s role in the evolution of the folding chair and its symbolism, I think we can agree with Phil Lewis’s tweet — it does belong in a museum. But if the chair cannot be preserved as a cultural artifact for future generations to appreciate and learn from, at least there’s an endless archive of memes to remember it.
Editor’s note 8/10/23 4:11pm EDT: A previous version of this article described the victim in the assault as a dockworker; they were the co-captain of the riverboat. The article has been corrected.